Dear Crucial Skills,
Help! I am the wife of a hoarder. My husband buys and keeps everything. He has a hobby room, garage, and a rented storage unit full of stuff, including twenty-year-old key chains from vendor booths, console TVs from the 1970s, empty boxes, old magazines, plastic silverware, and anything others don’t want or need. It is in no particular order and the spaces are chaotic and embarrassing to the rest of the family. His space at work is in the same condition!
I spoke to him about cleaning up, sorting through, and getting rid of unnecessary items with no success. Do you have any advice on how to approach this?
Yes, I have advice!
Before I start, please note that my response won’t give you specifics on dealing with hoarding—which is a psychological problem with its own characteristics and about which I am not an expert. I hope some of what I’ve written helps you think about the common challenge every reader of this newsletter faces—the challenge of influencing those we love to change habits that are far larger than a crucial conversation.
This is not a Crucial Conversations issue, it’s an influence problem.
Crucial conversations are great at influencing change when all it takes to change is surfacing an issue and providing straightforward advice and accountability. We have spent twenty-five years studying and writing about these methods because they are often the simplest step forward and the step people are most reluctant and incapable of taking.
But sometimes the behavior won’t yield to a ten-minute conversation and a bit of follow up. For example, a dear friend recently suffered his third heart attack. After his first, his doctor counseled him to change his eating habits, exercise more, and take blood pressure medication. Terrified of the heart attack, he complied with this advice. For a while. But within a few months, he was eating cheesy burritos, channel surfing, and failing to take his medication. Then came the second heart attack. And the second recommitment to changing his behavior. And the second descent into old ways. And so on.
As all this happened, his children and wife had many crucial conversations with him—pleading with him to change, reminding him of how they had almost lost him. But the more they tried to help, the more resentful he became. They became nags, and rather than influence change, they provoked his resistance to change.
When we treat an influence problem as a crucial conversation, we not only fail to produce change, we can (with all the best intentions in the world) become nags in the process. Perhaps you haven’t crossed the “nag” line yet, but if you continue down this path, it is most likely coming!
So how do you escape this trap?
Recognize the size of the problem. The problem is not only that your husband lacks the will to change. The problem is that he is blind and outnumbered. And so are you! He’s blind to how many sources of influence are sustaining his hoarding habit. And he’s outnumbered because there are far more sources working against him than for him.
We often think overcoming a habit like hoarding is just about personal motivation (The first source of influence), but it’s not. It’s also about personal ability (the second source of influence). Your husband likely has powerful impulses that drive him toward this behavior and lacks the skills he needs to retrain those impulses. He needs coaching and mentoring—and maybe even professional help—not just encouragement. If you try to motivate someone who is unable, the result is not change but depression. If you want to help him increase his ability to change, you’ll need to identify the strategies people use to successfully escape hoarding.
Please note that this is an example of just one of the six sources of influence that are likely at play here. Make a study of the six sources of influence and reflect on which are part of the problem. Our forthcoming book, Change Anything: The New Science of Personal Success, will be a useful tool in helping you explore all six sources in the context of personal change.
Control your own behavior. The most powerful human impulse is the need for control. People resist any attempt to constrain or force their behavior. Untold millions have gone to war and given their lives rather than submit to tyranny. We do the same, even when defending our autonomy to behave badly.
If you want to increase your influence, give up any desire to control your husband’s behavior. In fact, the first question you should ask yourself is, “How can I prepare myself for this behavior to continue forever?” You need to get to the point that you decide how you will control your own choices without centering your life on his choices. If, in the extreme case, you would prefer to live without him rather than with his hoarding, you need to be clear on that. If you can cope with the hoarding and would prefer to continue the marriage, lovingly, maturely, and respectfully set boundaries to make it work. Don’t “use” these boundaries as a way to manipulate him.
Help him motivate himself. The most common question we’re asked by those trying to influence a loved one is, “How can I help them want to change?” When it comes to personal change, the answer is, you can’t. However, you can influence their personal motivation in two ways:
Stop standing between him and consequences. Direct experience is life’s great teacher, but we often undermine people’s motivation to change by standing between them and the natural consequences they would otherwise feel. For example, a drug addict who is financially supported by those who want him to change is protected from the financial misery that might help him connect his choices with consequences he doesn’t like. The first thing you and your family can do is examine the ways in which you enable your husband’s actions by not letting him experience the natural consequences of this habit. If you are doing this, find a healthy way to change. If the change will be jarring to your husband, be sure to have a crucial conversation to help him understand what you will change and why.
Help him find his own reasons to change. With most bad habits, people have moments of clarity. Moments when we feel a desire to change. Skillful influencers can help others extend the potency of these moments by reacting with a motivational interview rather than a motivational speech. A motivational interview is a simple, structured way to help others explore and crystallize their own reasons to change and plan for doing so rather than taking control and forcing our own agenda on them. How you react during small moments of motivation can either help others capitalize on them or overpower them with your own well-intended but overwhelming motivations.
Again, I am not an expert on hoarding, nor is this a complete plan for change. However, I hope some of these insights help in the challenge of influencing a loved one to change potentially destructive behavior.
Best wishes—and please let me know what you learn about influence in the coming months and years.